Better buildings
February 26, 2021

Is It Time To Start Thinking About Wooden Industrial Buildings?

Industrial buildings are among the best examples of Louis Sullivan‘s famous phrase “form follows function.” Generally, they are functional, efficient buildings, quick to build and unornamented. That is why, when we study the industrial heritage of different cities and countries, we are able to understand local materials, technologies, and traditional construction methods of the time.

UBC Bioenergy Research and Demo Facility exterior

UBC Bioenergy Research and Demo Facility, Photo: Don Erhardt

England’s red brick factories come to mind, as well as the roof lanterns used to provide natural light to factories and other typical construction elements. Metallic and precast concrete structures are currently the most commonly used due to a combination of construction efficiency, cost, the possibility of expansive spans, and the unawareness of the benefits of other materials, such as wood. Often, these industrial warehouses are also characterized by being cold and impersonal, in addition to having a considerable carbon footprint. But Canada’s experience in recent years is noteworthy, where there have been an increasing number of wooden buildings constructed for industrial programs.

Wood design and construction

Advances translating to wood industrial buildings

In the last 25 years the wood design and construction industries have undergone great changes with the introduction of CAD and CNC robotic machines, providing this natural material with the real possibility of covering many different types of projects. The durability of wood can exceed 100 years if due care is taken in specification and construction, while building with wood provides almost infinite flexibility. From traditional structures of pillars, beams, and wood frames to engineered wood products such as Glulam and CLT, there are options to meet every need, including through combinations with other materials such as steel and concrete.

Examples of tall wooden buildings are already a reality, as well as public buildings and even schools. But associating wood with large industrial plants is something that still strikes most people as unusual.

Bioenergy Research & Demonstration Facility, UBC / McFarland Marceau Architects Ltd. Image © Don Erhardt Photography.

Planning ahead

What design decisions do you need to account for with industrial wood buildings?

When developing an industrial plant, all decisions will be highly influenced by the production processes that will take place in the space. What area and dimensions are needed? What is the process from raw material to final product? How many people will work there? What types of machines will the building house? What is the minimum ceiling height? Is a completely open plan fundamental or can internal columns be tolerated? While the obvious benefit of a free floor plan relates to unimpeded flows within the building and greater flexibility in terms of layout, by including internal columns in the space, construction costs are significantly reduced.

Whether with intermediate columns or not, industrial buildings will usually need considerable spans of open space. The three most common ways to achieve large open spaces with wood are with beams, trusses, or arches. Beams generally provide the most economical solution for areas with shorter spans and reduced vertical loads (in Canada, for example, a typical vertical load corresponds to the amount of snow, which places a considerable burden on roofs). For longer spans and greater vertical loads, using traditional beams becomes unviable due to high material costs and difficulties in handling and transportation.

BC Passive House Factory / Hemsworth Architecture. Image © Ema Peter Photography